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COVID-19

Undocumented workers who lost restaurant jobs struggle to get relief

David Weinberg Feb 18, 2021
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Perhaps no group is more in need than restaurant workers. Many of them are undocumented, and were left out of CARES Act relief. Volha Shakhava via Getty Images
COVID-19

Undocumented workers who lost restaurant jobs struggle to get relief

David Weinberg Feb 18, 2021
Heard on:
Perhaps no group is more in need than restaurant workers. Many of them are undocumented, and were left out of CARES Act relief. Volha Shakhava via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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As a kid growing up in West Los Angeles, Tony Ruiz often walked by the San Francisco Saloon on Pico Boulevard and wondered what it would be like to work there. Two decades later he found out, when he became a line cook making $14.50 an hour.

“I used to handle most dinners from Wednesday to Monday night,” he said. “I cooked burgers, sandwiches, wings, typical bar food. It was a fun place overall.”

Ruiz had been working there for nine months when the pandemic hit and the restaurant shut down, “and it was just like it was overnight, my bread and butter was taken from me. Restaurants was all I knew,” he said.

Multiple calls to the restaurant went unanswered.

As the Biden administration takes the reins of the economy, out-of-work families are hoping for a new round of federal pandemic relief. And perhaps no group is more in need than restaurant workers. Many of them are undocumented, and were left out of CARES Act relief. A Pew Research report says undocumented workers accounted for nearly a tenth of all workers in the food industry in 2017.

Ruiz said his parents brought him from Oaxaca, Mexico, to the U.S. when he was a year and a half old. He said he qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy that shields young, undocumented residents from deportation, but Ruiz aid he didn’t see any reason to apply. He was working steadily in restaurants.

“I was trying to achieve a career. I figured I wouldn’t need it. I figured restaurants would always be around,” he said.

Unable to pay rent, Ruiz said he now stays with sister and visits food banks. He said he also receives help from a local nonprofit called No Us Without You.

Damián Diaz is one of the co-founders of the organization. He also runs a restaurant consulting firm.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we started to help to feed undocumented back-of-house workers in the hospitality sector,” Diaz said.

Diaz and his business partner had connections to food suppliers and lots of out of work friends who volunteered to help distribute food. Now he said the group feeds 1,400 families.

“If they really are essential, let’s treat them as such,” Diaz said. “Let’s figure out some type of common ground here.”

California has provided some financial relief to those workers, but labor advocates say it has fallen short. As for Ruiz, he has not given up on his dream of opening his own restaurant. He’s saving up for equipment to sell tacos on the street until he can get back into the kitchen.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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